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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Updated: May 8

Among many new words in our vocabularies since the advent of the Internet, disintermediation may be one of the most understated to emerge from that sea of acronyms and euphemisms coined by tech marketers and journalists. The literal meaning is quite clear—to eliminate an intermediary.  But the deeper, and in some ways more sinister implication, is the removal of a person, business, or even an entire industry that once served consumers, governments and/or businesses themselves and with it—the jobs of tens of thousands.


Want to plan your next vacation, chances are you will not pick up the phone and call your local travel agent, but instead go online and search out destinations, flights, hotels, car rentals sights to see and places to eat. You might go to social media and ask for recommendations from those who live in the places you plan to visit or get reviews from those who visited before you.  If you have good research skills and sufficient time you can do a very good or at least decent job of it—but you will understand when you have hit the inevitable pockets of conflicting information, oh by the ways, and exceptions that travel agents earned their livings by sparing us all those time-wasting, frustrating and sometimes costly mistakes.


Need to fix your refrigerator that suddenly stopped making ice or perhaps your internet connection is spotty.  No fear, you can search answers and do it yourself videos to get answers and again use social media to find other equally bewildered or possibly informed individuals who will, out of the goodness of their hearts, guide you to the right solution or waste your time on fool’s errands.  Professionals charge for their time, and their expertise, your Internet experts are free.

Many of us have applauded the Internet’s service to humanity making it possible for us to have access to near limitless information and freeing us from the cost and service of intermediaries.  But the law of unintended consequences applies to that freedom, it comes at a price and sometimes it is steep.


There was a time in the not so distant past when the medical profession was a closely guarded priesthood, with its own language, rituals and rites that made it opaque to those of us who were afflicted with an ailment, even more so if our illness was potentially life threatening.  But thanks to the Internet we no longer are left stranded on the beach of ignorance, we can search for and find endless information and answers to our every question.  And thanks to the Internet we can also find every manner of misinformation, disinformation, advertising disguised as legitimate information, and all the conflicting answers we can eat.


That alone should give us sufficient cause to be mistrustful of attempts to play physician and heal ourselves, but humans being humans it has resulted in quite the opposite.  Suddenly everyone is a doctor, everyone an expert on every disease.  Marge down the street knows all there is to know about essential oils and their ability to cure cancer, heart disease and toe fungus.  A group of mothers on Facebook has the real lowdown on vaccines, the cause of every childhood issue from ADHD to Autism, and according to some the leading cause of by sudden death of a surprising number of celebrities and athletes.


Every day, ordinary people go online to look up the meaning of medical terms, try to understand the results of medical tests, or look for remedies for real and perhaps imagined diseases.  The Internet can be a godsend; relieving folks of apprehensions they need not harbor, providing rational explanations for concerning symptoms, or alertring us to legitimate concerns –always with the admonition to contact a health professional for follow-up. 


But sadly, many do not………contact health professionals.  Instead, they rely on Marge or the Mothers or who knows what source of information for guidance.  They may just work themselves up into a frenzy of apprehension due to their own inability to understand what they read online or conclude that they in fact know more than those pesky health professionals and need not consult them.


Don’t get me wrong, Doctors and other health professionals are not infallible gods on a pedestal.  Neither are they Marge or the Facebook mothers despite the stories you may have read how they were dazzled by the insights of some nameless person on social media who showed them the error of their ways and the waste of 8-10 years of formal education and training in their field with a simple herbal remedy for Mesothelioma.


The Internet has convinced many of us we have far more expertise than any sensible person could or should claim.  I don’t blame the medium—I blame us, our terribly human naivete that leads us to believe that our consumption of a few internet articles from random sources confers expertise in highly complex subjects. The clinical term for this phenomenon is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Simply put it is the cognitive bias by which people who possess limited competence in a subject overestimate their abilities—typically not by an inch, but by a mile.


Plato famously ascribed to Socrates the statement “I know that I know nothing”. The wisdom of this observation is lost on most of us.  It isn’t about intellectual humility, but rather the self-awareness to begin with an assumption that the sum of our knowledge, whether intermediated by the Internet or the school of life, is microscopic.  We actually know very little though we possess limitless information, unending opinions and countless views on every subject under the sun.


Socrates suggests we begin with questions and proceed by dialectic to interrogate each and every answer we receive.  If ever we reach a firm conclusion, a position which is suspect in itself, we should remain open to dismissing what we regard as proven at the first sign of contradictory information.  How many of us do this?  None.  We blunder our way through life making assumptions and basing decisions on incomplete, incorrect, emotionally laden opinions and the miracle is that we don’t fail more often than we do.


But when it comes to some things –one might hope a bit of native caution might restrict our tendency to overestimate our knowledge and ability.  Could we really land a jumbo jet successfully—maybe but I sure hope I never have to try. Neither would I let Marge treat me for anything, not even toe fungus. But today a lot of people are so sure they have all the answers that doctors, teachers, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics –virtually every profession is seen as a bunch of imposters—bumbling fools who are just protecting their jobs by hiding behind theories, ideas, and training they spent years to obtain.


One of the more egregious examples of Dunning-Kruger can be observed every day in our local, state and federal governments. Politicians elected to office overnight become expert on every subject—regardless of their prior education or training. They hold meetings and summon testimony so that they may instruct actual experts, people who are acknowledged professionals in their chosen fields why they know nothing and by dint of their office feel free to instruct these poor hapless fools. It is a wonder the world functions at all given how ill-informed and incompetent those who give testimony, what would we do without Congress?


Somewhere deep inside us we must know the world we live in is horribly complex and a very tiny part of it is all we might be able to comprehend. The Internet, as I said, can be a godsend and help us gain information and even some measure of understanding but it is not a replacement for actual knowledge or skill.  The next time we are tempted to disintermediate we might be wise to consider just how competent we are to DIY ourselves through life.

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